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Confessions of a Cartel Hit Man

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The first time he pulled the trigger, he said he couldn’t even think. He was just following an order that came in code while driving his police car with “a package,” a man he’d kidnapped at the behest of his boss.

“And hearing this number—this code—we knew this was an order that meant the person needed to die immediately … I realized at this moment that I never doubted that I would carry out any order that I was given.”

That’s a quote from a former police commander for the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua who kidnapped, tortured and killed hundreds of people for the Juarez and Sinaloa drug cartels. It was his “vida loca” for 20 years, until 2007, when—on his knees and bawling—he found God.

His story is told in El Sicario, the Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin, a two-year project of writer Charles Bowden, whose initial article appeared in Harper’s, and Molly Molloy, a researcher at New Mexico State University. The two came to know the former police commander after he fled to the United States. The resulting book is a narrative from hours of taped interviews about the man’s life as a professional hit man, a sicario.

Eight hours of the interviews were filmed by Italian director Gianfranco Rosi and became the documentary El Sicario, Room 164. In the documentary, the sicario appears draped in a black veil, discussing the entrails of organized crime from a motel room (No. 164) where he tortured a man for stealing cartel money.

Now a fugitive with a $250,000 price on his head, the sicario provides an articulate and seldom-seen account of a grisly and violent life fueled by drugs, booze and money. The combination of the three enabled him to kill.

The book shocks not so much for its violence as for its bleak outlook for Mexico, where at least 40,000 people have been murdered since President Felipe Calderon declared war on organized crime after taking office in 2006.

The dark world the sicario portrays knows no borders, and its inhabitants have the wealth and power to corrupt Mexican officials at the highest levels, as well as U.S. authorities. “I’m not going to tell you there are no good people,” he says. “But these people have been destroyed.”

With an elucidatory introduction written by Molloy, the book offers a rare look, even for students of Mexico, on how drug organizations operate, train and recruit people. The sicario was 16 and poor when he started selling drugs from his locker in high school.

“To be sixteen years old and to be able to live like this! To have money and to be able to invite any girl I wanted to go out to eat in nice restaurants with me,” he says. “What I really liked was being the most famous kid in the school.”

From small-time pusher in Ciudad Juarez, he graduates to driving carloads of drugs across the bridge to El Paso, getting paid $1,000 a pop. As a university freshman, he drops out to join the police academy, where a cartel pays for his training, including time at the FBI Training Center in Tucson, Arizona.

“Everything taught in these academies—how to use weapons, how to drive a car, how to conduct surveillance, how to read license plates, how to recognize faces, how to pursue people in urban car chases without losing them—all of these were skills that the narco- trafficking organizations were willing to pay a lot of money for,” he says.

Of 200 men graduating in his class in Chihuahua, he says “fifty are already on the payroll of the narco-trafficking organizations.” Some guard the safe houses filled with drugs. Some guard the guards at those safe houses. Some kidnap people who owe money or go to work for rivals groups. Some specialize in executions. And some bury the dead.

“We had the skill and dexterity to move all over the city. We knew how to act like police, because we were police,” the sicario says, often drawing diagrams, published in the book, to illustrate his points. One included the stick figures of two kidnapped people soaked in gasoline.

It’s but one horrifying detail in a book replete with them.

“Now, there are various ways of killing these people. And none of them are very agreeable. The easiest way is just to shoot them. But almost none of the bosses want them to die quickly or easily,” he says. “So what do you do? Suffocate them, make them suffer, take out their fingernails one by one, put needles under their fingernails.”

The book is not a morality tale, rather an attempt at salvation. The former police commander says God sent him signs after he stopped using alcohol and drugs cold turkey. “God called me,” he said. “He took me out of there.”

Susana Hayward has covered Latin America and Mexico for the past 20 years, working for The Associated Press, The San Antonio Express-News, and Knight-Ridder newspapers.

Freelance journalist Susana Hayward covered Mexico and Latin America for more than 20 years as a correspondent for the Associated Press, the San Antonio Express-News and Knight Ridder Newspapers.